‘Data bridges’ – the road to extreme corporate power in the digital era
Last month quietly ushered in a new agreement between the UK and the United States to open up transatlantic data flows, first signaled in the ‘Atlantic Framework’ signed in June. The “data bridge” will allow personal data – “everything from people’s social media photos to company payroll information” – to flow unfettered between the two countries.
The data bridge deal is actually a UK extension to the new data privacy agreement being negotiated between the US and the European Union. Effectively we’re saying the US can ‘adequately’ protect our data to the equivalent of UK and EU standards.
But this decision hasn’t been without controversy on the continent: the EU Court of Justice has invalidated the framework twice, most recently over concerns about the US government’s surveillance powers. The European Data Protection Board and the EU parliament haven’t given the latest iteration their full support, and privacy advocates are threatening to again challenge it in the courts.
Privacy is now an issue beyond common decency: we’re increasingly aware of our own commodification as we click, our sinister mutation from consumers of online platforms into their products, generating them billions in ad revenue. The use of personal Facebook data to help win the US election and Brexit referendum showed the dystopia taken to new levels in threats to our most fundamental democratic processes.
But while it should worry us that a handful of US multinationals can know us better than our friends – commentators note “it would be surprising if privacy interest groups in the UK don’t mount their own challenge” – privacy is not the biggest scandal of the wrangling of trade rules to rig the digitised economy.
Big Tech corporations are rigging the rules of the 21st century economy
The e-giants – like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Alibaba – are the new oil barons of the world, our data their precious resource to extract. By dishing out eye-watering amounts on lobbying to influence trade deals in their favour, they’re locking out the regulation needed to limit their harms before policymakers can scramble to legislate it.
At the other end of our new data bridge, the US has its tech behemoths, representing five of the six largest corporations by market value in history, whispering in its ear: it was the main architect of ‘e-commerce’ proposals at the World Trade Organisation in 2016. This effort by tech giants to maintain a global state of self-regulation is being replicated at the pluri- and bilateral levels: every trade agreement currently being negotiated by the UK, US, EU, Canada or Japan has ‘digital trade’ provisions.
Trade deals are the perfect vehicle to lock in their profit model: despite having huge impacts on our daily lives, they are negotiated by ministries with scant democratic scrutiny or transparency. We can vote out a government, get a policy changed – but trade deals roll on, binding and enforceable.
Top of the wish-list is preventing governments from keeping data generated in their country or about their citizens stored locally: trade rules banning ‘data localisation requirements’ allow companies to store data wherever they like (read: where it may be least regulated) and move it at a whim. Controlling massive troves of data, a few tech giants are becoming predatory rentiers of the intangible assets upon which the modern economy is rapidly coming to depend.
This attempt to codify into law a foreclosure of producers, communities and workers’ rights to control and benefit from the data we all produce has its sights even more aggressively trained on countries in the global south.
The world’s poor will pay the biggest price for neo-extractivism
We see it here in the UK with the rise of the precarious gig economy, but the no-strings-attached penetration of big data platforms into poorer countries’ markets risks mammoth wealth transfers from the pockets of the world’s poorest people to Silicon Valley executives.
Amazon is already big in India and Mexico, and Uber is siphoning rents off taxi drivers in places like Uganda and Bangladesh; AirBnb rakes it in across the global south’s tourist hotspots. Disguised as “e-commerce for development” to woo southern governments, these companies’ trade rule wish-list also seeks to ban countries from imposing conditions on their market access, such as the need for such firms to establish a local presence or share technological knowhow.
No need for any boots on the ground – plus a moratorium on custom duties – blocks countries from regulating, taxing or getting local jobs from industries that feed on their citizens’ data: the typical extractive model. Banning technology transfer, so vital in other industries for economic development, is a malevolent hamstringing of global south countries’ ability to nurture their own infant industries and capture more value for local populations.
Getting ahead of Big Tech’s trade power grab
If the data monopolies teach us anything it’s that knowledge, quite literally, is power. Those of us concerned with economic injustice must keep up with how it’s being structured in today and tomorrow’s world. If the era of fossil fuel-based economies saw strongly unionised sectors winning huge concessions like the (now rapidly eroding) welfare state, we’ve arrived at digital platform monopolies striving to atomise their workforces and render us all alienated labourers in the attention economy.
But by recognising our collective production of this invaluable resource – as data will be critical in tackling climate change and expanding accessible public services – we can begin interrogating why it’s out of our control. Then our task is to shift the narrative towards data as a public good and wrest its governance out of the iron grip of trade deals.